Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Railroad Throws Kazaks Lifeline

Villagers in the inhospitable, impoverished steppes cling to railways for survival.
By Erbol Jumagulov

Every morning at seven thirty, Shynar Alenova boards the train to Astana from her village in Bekbaul, southern Kazakstan. She goes no further than the next station, Kamysty Bas, before getting off and taking a train in the opposite direction, back to Bekbaul.


Unlike other regular passengers, Shynar does not take the train to travel to her place of work – her workplace is the train itself and the passengers inside it are her livelihood. On the brief journey between Bekbaul and Kamysty Bas, she moves up and down the carriages selling cutlets and buns to travellers on their way to Astana.


The 47-year-old is one of many thousands in the deprived rural hinterland of Kazakstan for whom the railway line has become a lifeline. When she gets off at Kamysty Bas, other women get on, selling more buns and cutlets as well as dried, smoked fish. One of them told IWPR, “We are lucky that we have a lake and can sell fish, unlike the rest.”


As for Shynar, she takes the train back to Bekbaul and buys flour and stuffing for the next day. The food she sells on the train to Astana earns her, on average, 300 tenge, or about 2 US dollars a day. After buying supplies, she is left with an approximate profit of 1 US dollar, which she spends on essentials such as bread and tea for her family. “There is no way we can save any money,” she told IWPR. “And of course, no one even mentions buying new clothes.”


Shynar has a tough life. She is the sole breadwinner in a household of six, which includes three daughters, her son-in-law and her granddaughter.


Bekbaul and Kamysty Bas lie in the Aral region of southern Kazakstan. The shrinking Aral Sea, the centre of an environmental disaster zone, is just over 100 km away. The region was once famed for supplying fish and sea products consumed throughout the Soviet Union.


Now, the sea is drying up and toxic waste from Soviet-era factories has sharply reduced the quality of life for the region’s inhabitants.


Factories have been closed down, leaving behind unemployment and poverty.


The government is said to be attempting to solve the problem by resettling locals from impoverished small towns and villages. It's pressuring them into moving by withdrawing benefits. In the Aral region, residents have so far been cushioned by international aid, but many complain that local officials are mismanaging distribution.


Nuraly Suleimanov, an inhabitant of a town in the area, told IWPR, "The aid has been delayed and recipients' names have been crossed off the list and replaced with the names of those who have bribed the mayor."


IWPR spoke to the deputy mayor of Aralsk, Arbek Baitukenov, who denied the allegations and insisted that all aid earmarked for the region had been delivered.


Passing through the midst of economic and environmental meltdown, the Kazak railroad has become a saviour for those who have chosen to live on in the Aral region.


Many Bekbaul villagers rely on the railway line for survival, hawking their wares from the station platform. According to Shynar, most of these traders are women, fiercely protective of their “patch” on the platform. Intrusions into each other’s territory lead to spectacular rows, which, all too often, degenerate into fisticuffs.


Hundreds of settlements similar to Bekbaul are scattered along the branches of the Kazak railroad. Some support as few as fifty families; others have as many as a thousand households.


Yet the trade on the platforms is not confined to the villages. The town of Janatas in the Jambyl region was built by the Soviets to house workers from its phosphorous plant.


The plant was closed down and thousands lost their livelihood. Today, 85 per cent of the population is unemployed. It is estimated that the remainder work in kiosks or sell their wares from the train station platform. Drug addiction is rife in the town.


The nearby town of Chu, notorious for its high-grade marijuana plantations, is also fortunate to have a major railway line passing through it. Aidar Sagimbaev, a Chu resident, said, “A large portion of the population earns its living doing business on the platforms.”


Sociologists estimate that the trade on the railway platforms is the last remaining income in many of these settlements, particularly in the areas bordering the steppes. Yet they fear that it will not be enough to stop people from migrating to the towns – the population in Kazak provincial settlements has dropped by 12 per cent in recent years, according to Astana’s Tsesna-Info newspaper.


For the moment, Shynar says the only thing stopping her from joining the exodus is the railroad, “What else do we have to do? It is good that we earn something, enough to afford a modest meal.”


Erbol Jumagulov is an IWPR contributor.